Jesus, drugs and rock 'n' roll: How an Orange County hippie church birthed contemporary Christian music (Steve Rice / Los Angeles Times) BY  RANDALL ROBERTS STAFF WRITER  OCT. 5, 2021

Hundreds of Calvary Chapel members take part in a baptism ceremony, 1973.

The birth of contemporary Christian rock and pop music in America can in part be traced to a vision received by a 17-year-old runaway from Costa Mesa named Lonnie Frisbee.

After stripping naked and taking LSD in 1967 near Tahquitz Falls outside of Palm Springs, the young man called to God.

As water from the falls crashed, Frisbee, who wore his hair and beard like the archetypal Jesus Christ, saw himself standing beside the Pacific Ocean, Bible in hand, staring out at the horizon. But instead of water, the sea was filled with lost souls crying out for salvation.

""God, if you're really real, reveal yourself to me," Frisbee,  who died  of AIDS in 1993, later recalled pleading. ""And one afternoon, the whole atmosphere of this canyon I was in started to tingle and get light and it started to change — and I'm just going, 'Uh oh!'"

This lesser-known chapter in Southern California music history provides the genesis of ""The Jesus Music," a new documentary that traces the contemporary Christian music movement birthed at  Calvary Chapel  in Costa Mesa and similar pockets of divinity dotting the country.

Within a year of that vision, the bell-bottomed messenger Frisbee was converting hippies alongside a bald fire-and-brimstone preacher named  Chuck Smith  and transforming Calvary Chapel — which The Times described in a 1970 story called ""Zapped Fundamentalists" as ""a small church of glass, brick, stucco and wood" — into a haven for touched-by-the-spirit bands such as  Love Song Gentle Faith Blessed Hope  and  Children of the Day .

""We were models for how you could use drums and guitars in church and still have it be godly," says Love Song co-founder  Chuck Girard .

Directed by Nashville-based sibling team the Erwin Bros., ""The Jesus Music" examines how the spirit of the times, a rush of faith-filled creativity and the emergent ""Jesus People" movement begat a multimillion-dollar industry fueled by devotees eager to support their blessed messengers. The documentary, which premiered in theaters Friday and grossed an impressive $560,000 over the weekend, includes interviews with Girard and his Love Song bandmate Tommy Coomes; contemporary Christian stars Amy Grant, Kirk Franklin, TobyMac of DC Talk, Lecrae and Michael W. Smith; and volumes of archival footage.

""There's just something so pure about where it all started," says co-director Jon Erwin. ""There wasn't really an industry or an agenda behind it. Just a bunch of hippie kids that experienced something and gathered in masses to sing their songs."

Though ""The Jesus Music" moves far beyond Costa Mesa to tackle issues of race, morality, sin and redemption, its opening canto beams light on a long-gone music community 50 miles south of Laurel Canyon. There, during the same period Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Frank Zappa and the Byrds were becoming famous, a half-dozen Calvary Chapel bands united in 1971 to create ""The Everlastin' Living Jesus Music Concert."

Released on Chuck Smith's new Maranatha! Music label and costing about $4,000 to produce, the album went on to sell more than 200,000 copies. Fifty years later, ""The Everlastin' Living Jesus Music Concert" is considered the Big Bang of contemporary Christian music — a collection of folk-inspired soft rock that, as it eased its way onto youth-group turntables across the country, cast a spell over Jesus-loving, mostly white baby boomers amid a generational shift.

""When I first heard that Maranatha record, I couldn't get enough of it," Christian singer Michael W. Smith says in ""The Jesus Music." ""This thing called 'Jesus Music,' which exploded in Southern California, somehow found its way [to] my hometown, and it changed my life."""We were models for how you could use drums and guitars in church and still have it be godly," says Love Song co-founder Chuck Girard. (William DeShazer / For The Times)

""LSD was sort of a life-changer for me," says Chuck Girard.

Like Lonnie Frisbee, Girard was unanchored and experimenting with drugs in the late 1960s.

""It opened up a bridge between the natural world and the spiritual world," the Love Song singer-songwriter says by phone from his Nashville home. ""As a Christian, I now consider it a counterfeit experience, but it's very real when you're going through it."

California was drenched with LSD in the late 1960s, and Orange County was no exception. Laguna Beach, where many Calvary Chapel hippies were living, was haven to a bunch of acid-heads known as the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. Operating under the belief that LSD should be free, they developed ritualized trips and distributed it and pretty much every other drug at a boutique called the Mystic Arts World.

Girard, who recently published a memoir, ""Rock & Roll Preacher," recalls cruising the California coast to ""pick up hitchhikers along Pacific Coast Highway to get free drugs because they'd be carrying a bag of weed or whatever." On one such adventure, they ferried some fellow travelers who asked, ""Hey man, do you guys know Jesus? We found Jesus. We go to Calvary Chapel."

Born in downtown Los Angeles, Girard first earned major attention as a singer in the mid-1960s L.A. band the Hondells, one of producer-songwriter Gary Usher's many hot rod-related projects. In 1964, the band's version of Brian Wilson's "" Little Honda ," featuring Girard on vocals, peaked at No. 9 on the Hot 100.

But an unfulfilling, acid-fueled existence had left him rootless and dispirited. Searching, Girard and a few musician friends formed Love Song in 1969 as a way to address life's big questions. He recalls this period as a ""big mix of drugs and the Bible and Eastern philosophies — trying to check out what life was all about." As the clique ""started to land on the Bible more than anything," Girard and his bandmates made the trip from their place in Laguna Beach to bear witness with Frisbee.

The hippie's skills behind the pulpit were undeniable. ""Lonnie did not have any executive abilities particularly, but he certainly was a major player in attracting the hippies and the beach-bum types," explains Larry Eskridge, author of "" God's Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America ." Frisbee tied bells to his blue jean cuffs so he jangled when he walked, Eskridge continues, and ""really stood out as different. He emphasized signs and wonders and miracles."

After one particularly inspirational evening with Frisbee at Calvary, Girard had his literal come-to-Jesus moment, one that has informed his life ever since. Filled with fervor, Girard recalls thinking, ""Wouldn't it be cool if we played here? Then they'd have a band that looked like Pink Floyd and a preacher that looked like Jesus."

But Smith, a Bible-thumping conservative, was wary. Before Frisbee, he'd had no time for California long-hairs, Smith told The Times in the early 1970s. ""My feeling was, 'Dirty hippies. Why don't they take a bath?'" The church was growing, though, and Girard and his Love Song bandmates Jay Truax and Tommy Coomes convinced Smith to listen to them play.

In the sanctuary, they offered "" Welcome Back ," a breathtaking Beach Boys-inspired production about a fallen believer returning to God. Hearing the song, Smith later wrote, ""The Holy Spirit just touched my heart. I began to weep, and I hadn't even been anywhere!"

The minister asked Love Song to play at that evening's Frisbee-led youth night — ""like heaven for us," recalls Girard — and not long after, Girard started production with an engineer at a local studio on the songs that became ""The Everlastin' Living Jesus Music Concert."

Within two years, Love Song would play as part of the Billy Graham-co-signed Explo '72 at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas before an estimated 75,000 people. At the time, the New York Times declared it ""the largest religious camp meeting ever to take place in the United States."

Those vivid scenes drew the Erwin Bros. to the story of Calvary Chapel's role in Christian music history, says co-director Andrew Erwin. He cites the famous Time magazine cover from 1971, emblazoned with the words "" The Jesus Revolution ," as an early window into the Jesus People movement and music. ""It blew me away in this all-roads-lead-to-Rome way. So much came out of that movement and out of Calvary Chapel, including Christian music."

Six-time Grammy Award-winning singer Amy Grant first heard ""The Everlastin' Living Jesus Music Concert" as a preteen at some friends' house in Nashville. ""We would just sit in front of their turntable," Grant recalls on the phone from Nashville. Soon she was part of the youth group and dabbling in music. ""I wrote my first song because I was like, 'God has a real PR problem in the conservative world because people think it's a cultural choice instead of this adventure.'"

Not that Nashville was short on musical salvation. Word Records, founded in Waco, Texas, in 1951, helped spread a Southern-style evangelical message to the masses — and released Grant's 1977 self-titled debut on its Myrrh Records subsidiary.

It was a distinctly different music from the Black gospel sound born in Southern Baptist churches, which laid the foot-stomping foundation for early rock 'n' roll. Christian rock and pop artists of the '70s, including Girard, Grant, Larry Norman,  Phil Keaggy , the  All Saved Freak Band  and Mustard Seed Faith, liked to say that, since rock 'n' roll was born in the church, they were merely facilitating its return.

Or, as Norman argued in his 1972 song of the same name, "" Why should the devil have all the good music? "

The charismatic, enigmatic rock singer and songwriter Norman, who spent the late 1960s canvassing Hollywood Boulevard for converts, signed with Capitol Records to release 1969's ""Upon This Rock," regarded as the first Christian rock album. ""Upon This Rock," though, tanked and Capitol dropped him.

Maranatha! Music is a Christian music record label which was founded as a nonprofit ministry of Calvary Chapel in 1971. The label is distributed by Capitol Christian Music Group , a division of Universal Music . In the early 1970s Calvary Chapel was home to more than 15 musical groups [1] [2] that were representative of the Jesus movement . In 1971, Maranatha! Music was founded as a nonprofit outreach of Calvary Chapel to popularize and promote a new, folk-rock style of hymns and worship songs influenced by the Jesus people. [3] [4] [5] Some of the early Maranatha! recording groups were Sweet Comfort Band , Love Song , Chuck Girard , Children of the Day , The Way , Debby Kerner , Mustard Seed Faith , Karen Lafferty , and Daniel Amos . The label's first release was a various artists compilation entitled The Everlastin' Living Jesus Music Concert , in 1971. [1] The first release is also known as Maranatha! 1 as it became part of what would be called the Maranatha Series.

Maranatha! also branched into the children's market segment. Premier products included Psalty the Singing Songbook and The Kids Praise Album! . In the early 1990s this segment represented about 40% of company revenues. [1]

In the 1980s, Maranatha! launched Broken Records , a label focusing on modern rock , punk and alternative music. The "Colours" series contained instrumental music in the vein of New Age artists, but the label avoided the term. [6]